The pull of Porter's
In the genteel Ribble Valley, Chatburn-based Roy Porter Butchers is tempting in customers from across the district with its meat from native breeds, home-smoked bacon, homemade pies and a generous dose of humour, finds Martin Pilkington
As the number of butchers has declined, those remaining have to fight the supermarkets with something other than their weapon of choice - price.
Roy Porter owns a shop in the village of Chatburn in Lancashire's Ribble Valley and his business survives and thrives by offering just what you cannot get on superstore shelves. Roy's early story is a familiar one: "I started here as a Saturday lad in 1962, then came to work when I left school at 17, taking over from my predecessor 19 years ago."
Roy trained at night school in Blackburn and Burnley and with seminars and courses elsewhere, but mainly learned on the job. The shop now has nine staff members - some full-time, some part-time - who work in what he describes as 'cosy' premises, which means they have to get on. "I have been very lucky with my staff; we have a good working atmosphere, lots of laughing and joking and I think it shows through to the customers when we are serving," he says. At Christmas, it must get even cosier, with the old-fashioned shop rails draped with bronze turkeys from Pendleton and whites from Bolton Abbey.
Part of Roy's business plan is doing as much as possible in-house. "We try to hang all the meat ourselves, so the chiller is permanently full," he says. "We do a reasonable range of our own cooked meats - the only things we actually buy in are black puddings (from The Real Lancashire Black Pudding Co) and haggis. The bulk of our bacon we cure ourselves - we have a little smoker for hot and cold smoking. And we make our own sausages."
Five years ago, Roy's daughter Gill joined the business, adding another string to its bow. "She started baking our pies - we make our own pastry and fill them with our meat. We do proper hot water pastry for pork pies and so on. Since we've had the hot cabinet, the sales of pies have gone up dramatically."
They now supply two other shops in the village and even the local filling station. Careful research of their jelly-filled and peppery pork pie confirms its quality. Ready-meals cooked in the bakehouse, such as lasagne, cottage pie and hotpots also sell well.
Rather than simply relying on his village for clientele, Roy attracts customers from all over the district. The Ribble Valley is prosperous - part-commuter, part-gentleman farmer, part-footballer country - with cooks who are looking for interest and flavour in their meat, and Roy is determined to provide just that and more. "We have an ethos of care," he says. "If someone comes in and doesn't like the look of what's cut and ready, we ask, 'What thickness would you prefer?' and do it for them."
He is keen to serve what others might see as niche markets, but they are niches that bring in discerning - and spending - customers. The business is one of the few licensed organic butchers in the area, selling Salt Marsh Lamb from Stuart Lawson in Cockerham, Herdwick hogget with a heathery and gamey taste from the Langdale Valley, and a variety of beef breeds - Dexter, Highland, Angus (the shop has always specialised in Scotch Beef). "People will come in regularly now and ask, 'What is the beef this week?' We try to use native breeds, because most of our customers like marbled beef, and the way we cut product follows British tradition," he says.
Veal is on the list, too, but only rosé veal from a farm just a couple of miles from the slaughterhouse, so stress levels are reduced. "I have visited most of our suppliers and we've dealt with them for a long time. People do ask about welfare sometimes," Roy says.
This concern for welfare has resulted in growing sales of free-range poultry. And his pork includes rare breeds - Tamworth, Gloucester Old Spot and Saddleback - some of which is used in sausages without rusk to get the very best from the meat's flavour.
Sausages are another speciality, with a dozen varieties always on sale. Roy's interest in the product recently took him to Aberdeenshire to judge them in a competition there.
Roy is also a member of the Mutton Renaissance Club. "It is mainly bought by the older generation, although some of the younger foodies come to try it. There has been a bit of a misapprehension that it was going to taste too strong. All our stuff comes from our organic farmer, because we know where they have been kept and the age of them. It is quietly increasing."
So, it seems, is his turnover, despite the recession. "Organic products are the only side that has tailed off at all. Our general turnover just creeps up all the time. We have been very fortunate that we have a really loyal clientele, many of whom travel a considerable distance to get to us."
The sort of customers Roy gets - unlike some of today's supermarket shoppers - know that animals are made up of more than just steaks and roasts. "We still have a good demand for lamb's liver, fries and sweetbreads," he says. David, one of his butchers, points to the ox cheek he is preparing: "A few years ago you couldn't sell this, given the BSE regulations, but now it's popular again and we have a big order on. It's tasty stuff."
That last sentence sums up what Porter's, like every good butcher's shop, aims for. How they do it is neatly encapsulated by the wording on their bags - 'Meat from traditionally reared native breeds, properly hung and cut by butchers who care!'
There has only been one fly in Roy's ointment recently - his shop, along with two others in the district, was burgled at the end of March and his safe stolen by the thieves. Even in the genteel Ribble Valley some of the less welcome aspects of the modern world occasionally invade. n
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